We all share the responsibility for fighting genocide

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Paul Rusesabagina has stared down the forces of death. He has denied the reaper. He stood up to evil alone while the rest of the world turned its back.

When he speaks about genocide, we should all listen.

Rusesabagina is best known in the United States from the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” which dramatized his efforts to save lives during the genocidal madness of 1994.

At the time, Rusesabagina was the manager of the Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Beginning on April 7, 1994, the hotel became a refuge of last resort for more than 1,200 people fleeing machete-wielding Hutu militiamen intent on murder.

By the time the killing had stopped, more than 800,000 people had been slaughtered, mutilated, dumped in ditches or left to waste away on the side of the road. All 1,268 people under hiding in the hotel survived.

On April 24, Rusesabagina brought his message of survival – and a warning – to the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where he spoke to a standing-room only crowd of more than 500 people. The event, which also marked the days of remembrance for the Armenian Genocide (April 24) and for the Holocaust (April 25), was a call to action against the death on a massive scale that is going on in Sudan’s Darfur region and in the Congo.

Rusesabagina recounted the harrowing tale of his survival and the confrontations with soldiers that could have easily led to his death and the death of his family.

On many occasions, Rusesabagina said, death seemed certain; the only question was how terrible the circumstances would be.

Since leaving Rwanda in 1996, Rusesabagina has dedicated his life to educating the world about the horrors that continue in Africa. “Today in Darfur, in the Congo, people are dying every day.”

In the Darfur region of Sudan, it’s estimated that more than 400,000 people have been killed by government-backed militia and another 1.2 million have been displaced. Entire villages have been destroyed and wells poisoned so the people can never return. Women are raped and killed for the simple act of gathering fire wood. It’s a terrible humanitarian disaster that the world has done too little to stop.

Ethnic war has been raging in the Congo since 1998. More than 4 million people have been killed and millions more have been displaced. Despite numerous peace accords, the beatings, rapes and executions continue.

“Is this not a shame to mankind?” Rusesabagina asked.

The two most abused words used, especially on days remembering the horrors of genocide, are “never” and “again,” Rusesabagina said. “How many times shall we lie and not join words with actions?”

At the end of his speech, Rusesabagina called upon the audience: “Never be bystanders. Are you ready to stand up?”

The crowd, at once, bounded to its feet.

Earlier this year, Maine’s Legislature passed – and Gov. John Baldacci signed – a law that divests the state’s retirement system from holdings in Sudan. It’s a small step, to be sure, but at least it recognizes that we all share in the responsibility for fighting genocide.

A rally is planned for April 30 in Washington, D.C., to call attention to the suffering in Darfur and to demand international action. Will anyone listen?

We talk about the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews by Adolf Hitler. We remember the Armenians who died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. We struggle with our collective indifference for the unraveling of Rwanda. And we say, “Never again.”

They are empty words unless we heed the message of Paul Rusesabagina and act.

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